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Before and After
Olivier BenHaim with his future wife, Amy, during his Israeli military service in the 1990s.

On the first Shabbat in November 2015, I gave a talk connected to that week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. The parashah opens with Sarah’s death and ends with Abraham’s. This piece of Torah history closes a chapter: it marks the passing of a generation of leaders.

What happens when leaders die? How is the trajectory of the narrative affected by the next generation? I was pondering these questions when a flood of emails overtook my inbox: articles commemorating the 20th anniversary of Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination on November 4, 1995.

I couldn’t believe that 20 years had passed. To say that this was the event that upended my life would be a colossal understatement. When the news broke, Amy and I were in Jerusalem, glued to the TV, crying and holding each other in complete disbelief of what we were witnessing, on what was supposed to be our last evening together. She was boarding a plane back to the United States the next day. I was rejoining my unit in the morning, getting on a bus from Tel Aviv to southern Lebanon, as I had volunteered a year and a half earlier to serve in the IDF’s Golani Brigade. We thought we’d never see each other again.

I stepped onto that bus dazed and bereaved. Not only had a meaningful relationship in my life ended, but one of my heroes had just been murdered. Not by an enemy of Israel, mind you, but by another Jew. Yet as I climbed on I saw, to my horror, my brothers-in-arms celebrating the murder of a political figure they saw as the enemy.

Most of the young Israelis who served in the Golani Brigade at that time were, like me, the children of Jewish immigrants who, in the 1950s and ’60s, were dispossessed and expelled (oftentimes violently) from the Arab lands they had lived in for generations. They came to Israel wounded and resentful, harboring anger and anti-Muslim sentiment. Their children grew up, as I did, hearing racist and deprecating comments about Muslims from parents and grandparents still reeling from their own trauma. To them, Rabin betrayed Israel by making peace with the enemy; his assassination was a necessary evil — even a time for rejoicing.

Up until that moment, I had shared their views. But that a fear of Arabs could justify murdering an Israeli hero showed me the dark shadow of racism, the threat of anti-Palestinian extremism to democracy. In the few hours of that bus ride, the truths that I held, the beliefs that sustained me, my Zionist ideals, were all smashed to pieces. By the time I got off, my entire world had collapsed. For the next four months, I put my life in my fellow soldiers’ hands day in and day out. Yet, in that moment, I didn’t want anything to do with them anymore. I didn’t want anything to do with Israel anymore. When I eventually rejoined the civilian world, I no longer recognized my Israeli friends or my country. I no longer knew how to be in that place.

I got hold of Amy’s phone number. She had relocated to New England. “If I join you,” I asked, “would you consider giving us another chance?” When I left Israel, I left a torn piece of myself behind. In time, I learned to love my land again with greater acceptance and understanding, though I’ve had to mourn the lost Israel of my youth.

Rabbi Olivier BenHaim leads Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue on Capitol Hill. He and Amy have been married 17 years and have two children.
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